Collaboration between Realities – Push Conference 2016

One common request we got from clients over the last few months was:
“Could you create a VR experience for us?”
As we are first and foremost interaction designers, thinking about the whole experience is the first thing we do when getting such a request. With VR these thoughts often conclude with: Is a normal VR experience really the best thing for the information and experience our clients want to provide to their customers?
At the moment VR experiences mostly are single user experiences.
As our clients often are exhibiting on trade fairs or similar events, “normal” VR experiences just aren’t the best they could show their customers.
The biggest problem: Standing in line waiting for your turn, as there is only one user per device possible.
Developing the Prototype Concepts
Therefore we started brainstorming, thinking about possible ways to expand the VR experience and connect the VR user with the people around him, creating an interplay between the digital experience and the real world.
We developed methods and concepts of interactions mainly focusing on physical objects to create changes in the digital world and vice versa.
These interactions and their possibilities led to ideas for prototypes of which we created two, ready to use at the push-conference 2016.
An example for a concept that didn’t get a prototype but still has an interesting interaction is the scavenger hunt idea.
Focusing on a collaborative experience between the VR User and the people around him, the VR user is placed in a room not able to get out on his own. To open the door the VR user has to find and understand clues in the room, pointing to real world locations and tasks.
The persons in the real world have to go to specific places and fulfil tasks to help the person in VR to escape. E.g. press a button to unlock something, or to uncover new clues.
This is a great example of how a connection between the digital and real world can improve and create collaborative experiences including all the people around the “normal” VR exhibit.
The two prototypes we created try to achieve similar things, creating interesting interactions to connect the people using the exhibit and bringing them to collaboration by using different means of communication.

Stranger Things
The first prototype is a nod to the series Stranger Things, where two persons that can’t see or hear each other, communicate over indirect means.
In our case one person is using the VR headset, seeing a room with a chain of lights at one wall and some objects placed on pedestals.
The VR user is able to walk around the room and touch things by using the motion controllers. 
In the real world there’s also a chain of lights at a wall, mirroring the digital world.
By touching the lamps or area close to the lamps the users can get the corresponding lamps to light up.
This happens in both worlds at the same time, so if the user in VR touches the digital lamps the real world lamp lights up and the other way round, therefore allowing the users to communicate with each other.
With this two way communication method established, the users now have to solve a little riddle, giving each other clues by lighting up the lamps, therefor sending messages.
It’s really important to implement interesting ways to interact, as touching the wall, lighting up the lamps to communicate fascinates the user’s way more than just typing on a keyboard. It also keeps them involved longer than traditional means of interaction.
Aside the moment when the users first realize that they can control elements of the other “world”, it’s really great to see people play around, interacting with each other in and out of VR. Creating a point of interest for people going by and just watching the interplay.
These kind of explorative and collaborative experiences help to keep the visitors interested and create a much more interesting way to connect to the content presented.
The second prototype is the labyrinth. The VR user is placed in a digital maze, trying to get to a pillar of light that can be seen when looking up.
The problem: Walls are blocking the way that can’t be overcome alone.
The users that aren’t in VR have a physical representation of the labyrinth, consisting of cards, in front of them. The cards have different types of paths printed on them and can be moved. But as the normal users don’t know where the player in VR nor the pillar of light is placed in the labyrinth they have to start collaborating.
To “win” the game the players now have to start communicating with each other, describing where they are in the labyrinth and what they are seeing so the player with the maze map can start to figure out where the player in VR is located and where the goal is.
Once they figured out where the VR-user is, the real world player can start to move the cards around to remove walls blocking the way.

This directly translates to the digital maze, shaping the digital world, possibly opening new ways for the VR user.
Again this is a great way to create collaboration this time using real objects the user can interact to create and change a digital world. This is easily expanded and adapted to different topics and themes, allowing the users in the real world to shape and create (information) worlds for the user in VR.
These two prototypes show that VR experiences don’t have to be a single user experience. People around the VR user can be integrated and don’t have to just wait.
Creating meaningful interaction, so both sides feel like their actions are useful, is very important, especially for the persons not in VR. As you don’t want them to feel like they are getting the short end of the stick.
It is also important to note, that these interactions aren’t limited to games, as the interplay between the worlds could be used to convey any information.

Technical Setup
The technical setup was really interesting for us, as we needed to connect and combine a lot of our skills and techniques to rapidly create these prototypes.
On the digital side we used the Unreal Engine providing us with great tools to create the VR environment and the digital interactions.
We then connected the Unreal Engine to a node.js server. This opened up almost infinite possibilities of connecting hardware and peripherals.
For the Stranger Things prototype an Arduino Mega is used on the hardware side of things. It controlls a strip of Adafruit Neo Pixels that can be adressed individually. Allowing the user to touch the wall to light up the lamps was made possible by creating a “simple” capacitive touch with aluminium foil behind the wallpaper under the letters. Wired to the Arduino it allows us to recognize changes in the electric fields of the foil and therefore recognizing a touch.
The Labyrinth on the other hand uses an optical tracking. Fiducial markers are glued under the labyrinth cards and tracked by reactivision.
This allows us to get the position, rotation and ID of each card needed to create the reactive virtual maze. The node.js server then sends the data to the Unreal Engine where we directly use it to set the position of the digital pieces.
We hope this insight into the development of the VR prototypes was interesting for you.

They were a great possibility for us to check out new technologies and see if we could find ways to expand them to make them more viable in new areas and under new circumstances.

You want more information? Just message us!